How to develop the virtues of the leader

There is no magic formula for turning someone into an accomplished leader. Good managers are generally formed over time, from the systematic exercise of good habits and routines, and as a result of the accumulated experience of their role and their relationships.

One of the most promising avenues to becoming a better manager is to practice the managerial virtues, those good operating habits that come through constant exercise, just as muscles are built through sustained training.

Virtues are not innate but acquired. However, some people argue that it is not possible to learn or develop basic character traits beyond a certain age. This point of view is based on outdated Freudian theories according to which the basic characteristics of personality are acquired and fixed before reaching adolescence.

Today, a growing number of contemporary educational theorists and cognitive psychologists accept that many skills and character traits can be learned and developed into maturity with necessary practice.

Business schools work on the premise that managers can not only update their knowledge of the latest management tools, but also hone their skills and shape their personalities, hopefully for the better, through education, practice, and learning. socialization.

How to improve leadership skills

We are emerging from the pandemic and returning to normality: it is an ideal time to take time for reflection and self-diagnosis and determine how to nurture and progress in the practice of the virtues of leadership. Here are some ideas that might be helpful:

  1. The list of leadership virtues is long and diverse. The most appropriate virtues to practice depend on individual aspirations and how they match up with management responsibilities or company values. Some of the skills traditionally associated with management are: wisdom, resilience, courage, temperance, justice (fairness) and sociability.

  2. Put the focus on the practice of those virtues in which you are strong. Traditionally, one of the goals of education was to correct deviations from standard behavior: overcome personal weaknesses, teach lefties to write with their right hands… Fortunately, modern educators have evolved to respect and value intrinsic individual diversity.

    In this sense, one of the most interesting contributions of positive psychology is to show that it is more productive, satisfying and potentially successful to strengthen one’s own strengths than to try to strengthen one’s own weaknesses.

  3. Register the personal evolution in the practice of managerial virtues. Sometimes journaling or keeping track of personal progress can be helpful and reinforcing. Benjamin Franklin’s candid account of his progress in what he thought were the thirteen basic virtues, along with an assessment chart, is a very vivid example of this effort.

  4. Keep in mind that the main objective of practicing managerial virtues is to become a better person, not just a perfected managerial technician. Becoming a virtuous manager is a matter of practice.

The philosophy of virtues

British philosopher Philippa Foot was one of the contemporary exponents of virtue ethics, which focuses on the character of the individual and the way that personality is reflected in their actions and decisions.

It is different from consequentialism, which holds that the result or consequences of a particular action determine whether or not it is morally acceptable. Also of ethics, which holds that the rightness or wrongness of an act is determined by its nature and its adherence and consistency with certain principles or norms.

In practice, the difference between these three alternative models of morality is in how problems are approached, how a decision is reached or justified, and not necessarily the final decision that is reached, in which everyone could coincide.

For example, a consequentialist might argue that stealing is wrong because of the negative consequences that result from it. A deontologist might argue that theft is always wrong, regardless of any well potential that can be derived from it.

However, proponents of virtue ethics would explain that a theft stems from immoral behavior, contrary to the practice of the virtue of justice, which demands respect for the property of others. Three different ways to reach the same conclusion.

Virtue ethics, which has its origins in the writings of Plato and Aristotle, was the predominant model in the ancient and medieval world. It emphasizes the character of the individual, his conscience and will, instead of dealing with the rules or the consequences of his decisions.

Following the classical tradition, Foot argued that there are three essential features of a virtue:

  • A virtue is a disposition of the will.

  • Its practice is beneficial to others, or to us and others at the same time.

  • Straighten out some bad human tendency.

Plato’s four virtues

Plato explored the main virtues in The Republicsummarizing them in four, associated with the different social classes of the time:

  • Temperance. Applicable to all social classes, but especially to workers, a virtue intended mainly to contain the excesses of anger and passion.

  • Courage. Associated with the military class, it emphasizes the bravery and mettle required by soldiers.

  • Prudence (or wisdom). It is a required trait for rulers and should guide law and leadership in society.

  • Justice. It transcends social classes and regulates relations between them and among citizens.

Foot incorporates these four cardinal virtues, which it considers essential for the development of the individual in society, to a broader list.

Although all must meet the three defining requirements of the virtues (will, benefit, improvement), in some cases Foot’s explanations seem scarce. For example, when he talks about practicing the virtue of charity strengthening moral qualities while impoverishing us materially.

Foot’s approach does not focus on the practice of a particular virtue, but on the balanced exercise of a system of virtues agreed by the members of society.

Virtue and business management

Virtue ethics has also influenced psychology. In its origins, psychology dealt with pathological cases, with people who posed a risk to society or to themselves.

However, in recent times there has been a growing interest in positive psychology, which aims to find and nurture genius and talent and make ordinary life more fulfilling, and is part of countless personal development and business management programs.

Christopher Peterson and Martin Seligman, two of the movement’s best-known advocates, add two virtues to the four cardinal virtues:

  • Humanity. It has to do with the practice of altruism.

  • Transcendence. Perhaps the least personal and most elusive virtue concerns the impact that individual behavior has on the world, as well as on aspects of spirituality.

In management, virtues analysis has been applied to business practices. One of the goals of business education, executive training and coaching is to develop skills that emphasize leadership or effectiveness in managerial performance, its measurement, supervision and promotion. These managerial skills are similar to virtues, and even have a certain moral scope.

There is no shortage of books on the virtues required of managers. One of the best known is The 7 habits of highly effective people (1989), by Stephen Covey, which has spawned a series of sequels.

The value of humility

Interestingly, one virtue that has been largely ignored by most philosophers except within the Christian canon is humility. Philippa Foot is no exception, and she mentions it only in passing when she criticizes the concept of Superman of Nietzsche.

That said, the most recent management literature does recognize the relevance of humility, understanding it as the ability that allows leaders to avoid arrogance, listen and be permanently oriented towards change and innovation. For example, Jim Collins, author of good to greatproposes the model of 5 level leadershipwhich places greater emphasis on humility.

For Collins, one of the common factors that successful companies share is that they have leaders who “build enduring greatness through a paradoxical combination of personal humility and professional will.” Admittedly, this is paradoxical given that among the most common qualities associated with business leaders, and sometimes promoted by business schools, is a sense of superiority and belonging to an elite, which often leads to overconfidence. and even in arrogance.

In Collins’s opinion, this arrogance often prevents understanding and assimilating what is happening around and acting accordingly.

In fact, reaching the height of management excellence requires discipline, practice, and hard work. It is not achieved simply with the passage of time. The learning curve is steep. A very promising and effective way is to practice the managerial virtues.

A version of this article was originally published on LinkedIn.

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